- Dialect Development in Mobile Urban Culture
Common notions about language and dialect may draw our attention to new phenomena. The notion I hear most regularly is that dialects are [End Page 386] disappearing, the culprit being television. I answer this myth with the argument that we pick up isolated words and phrases from television and little more, because we don't talk back to the television. But the laymen who have advanced the television theory to me are highly educated. They have observed phenomena and reasoned a cause. These educated speakers move in a mobile urban culture where nonstandard differences are smoothed out. Nonstandard dialect features are not actually disappearing, as research among working-class and lower-middle-class speakers continues to show, but participation by educated speakers in mobile urban culture makes it look to them like dialects are receding.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more noticeable than in El Paso, Texas. Newcomers expect to hear speech features identifying El Pasoans as Texans. Instead, they are struck by the "lack of accent" in El Paso, which has from its beginnings been a mobile urban culture, augmented by rapid expansion following World War II. El Paso gained residents from all over the United States: most were attracted to the warm, dry desert climate for health reasons; a few came to farm and ranch; many were assigned to Fort Bliss Army Base; some who worked for the railroad also settled in El Paso. Each war infused El Paso with new residents. Now corporations attracted by eased trade and manufacturing agreements with Mexico also contribute new residents. El Paso's educated middle class continues to lack roots in the region. It is difficult to find individuals who have never lived outside the city for a period of years.
This is not to say that educated middle-class El Pasoans do not exhibit regional speech features, just that those features are not so apparent to the casual observer. One such feature is you all. The contracted form representative of East Texas, y'all, is heard less often and is more modern in El Paso among the educated middle class; that is to say, more kids than adults say y'all. Still, you all is a regional form. By studying the educated middle-class speech of El Pasoans, we might predict adoption or loss of speech features among the educated middle class in other more recently mobilized urban regions, such as Atlanta, Georgia, which has been deluged with immigrants from other regions since the 1970s.
As mobile urban culture continues to expand, we will need continually to reexamine what "standard English" consists of. The realization that no one speaks without an accent, not even educated participants in mobile urban culture, will be needed to promote cultural acceptance of speakers from different social classes and immigrant groups.
Anne Marie Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia with interests in language variation and change, discourse analysis, and corpus linguistics. She is doing dissertation fieldwork in El Paso. Her first publication, a geographic and cultural analysis of Scots words in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE 1985-), appeared in the 1998 volume of Scottish Language.